The Frauenkirche cathedral is Munich’s best-known landmark. We delved behind the scenes at the “Cathedral of Our Dear Lady” and talked to the city’s parish priest about sight lines, holy relics and of course, the Devil.
Klaus Peter Franzl stands on the steps in front of his church and marvels. He uses both hands to hold the heavy door of the main entrance as he attempts to secure it to the wall; this entrance has not been used for ten years because of ongoing construction works. He tries once, twice; then on the third attempt the door finally stays open and the mechanism locks into place. “Now, just take a look at that beautiful sight!” says Monsignor Franzl, standing in the doorway. And it’s true: from here there is a stunning vista into the three-aisled, late Gothic cathedral that is the Frauenkirche.
“A church like this is like another sphere, a mystical space – an alternative world amid the hustle and bustle of the city and a place of tranquillity.”
The cathedral priest says he would prefer if everyone got their first glimpse of the place through this entrance. Many other cathedrals in places all over the world, such as Paris or Palma de Mallorca, are also designed with a single main entrance. “It is at its most majestic when you enter the cathedral that way. But most people come in through the rather unremarkable side entrances, and then they miss out.” It sounds like the priest is considering how he can present his cathedral church in an even better light. “A church like this is like another sphere, a mystical space – an alternative world amid the hustle and bustle of the city and a place of tranquillity,” says Franzl. So the first impression really counts.
The fact that first impressions can sometimes be deceptive is actually embedded in the lore of Frauenkirche. There is a city legend that when construction started in 1468, the Devil was furious about it and set about seeking to prevent the church’s success as a house of worship. The Devil entered into a deal with the lead architect, promising to help with the building work as long as the architect designed the church to have no windows – that was sure to prevent the faithful from staying too long inside. Building the church took just 20 years – a very rapid turnaround for such a large building, and not only by the standards of the time.
It’s said that the cunning architect got his advantage by using visual trickery to outwit the Devil. On entering the new building, a high altar in place at the time meant that no windows could be seen for the first few metres beyond the main entrance; only once deeper into the building did windows become visible behind the pillars and the altar.
“Legends like these do encourage curious visitors to call in, of course,” says the cathedral priest, grinning. “The Devil always does it.”
When the Devil came to survey the project he was satisfied at first – then discovered he had been cheated, whereupon he stamped his foot in rage: visitors today can still see the the Teufelstritt or “Devil’s footprint” – the black mark the Devil’s mighty stamp left on the floor a few metres inside the cathedral, where he realised he had been duped.
“Legends like these do encourage curious visitors to call in, of course,” says the cathedral priest, grinning. “The Devil always does it.” Many leave the cathedral again as soon as they have seen the Devil’s footprint though, which is a great shame as there is much more to admire in Munich’s Frauenkirche – you just need to know where to look. Whether it be the relics of Munich’s patron saint, St. Benno of Meissen, the many stained glass window designs, the Wittelsbach family memorial or the tombs in the bishop’s crypt, there is no shortage of things to see here. No surprise given that the Frauenkirche has also been the cathedral of the archbishops of Munich and Freising since 1821. “Yes, and of course there’s also the clock,” says the cathedral priest as we explore the “Liebfrauendom”, another name for the cathedral.
In fact the clock in this otherwise rather minimalist church is easily as entertaining as the Glockenspiel on Marienplatz: the almost 500-year-old automaton clock here features figures, planets and signs of the zodiac that move each day at midday.
In fact the clock in this otherwise rather minimalist church is easily as entertaining as the Glockenspiel on Marienplatz: the almost 500-year-old automaton clock here features figures, planets and signs of the zodiac that move each day at midday. But it must be said, even most locals seldom visit the Frauenkirche. That’s why the cathedral priest is planning to extend its media offering and do a little advertising for his beloved church.
Paper guides have recently been made available at the cathedral entrance to help visitors make different thematic explorations of the space, with five different flyers available. One of them, entitled “Mysterious places”, promises visitors an interesting tour that takes just 15 minutes (and includes the Devil’s footprint). Another flyer, bearing the name “Our dear Lady and us”, explains the connection between the Frauenkirche and the Holy Mother – after all, the church was associated with Mary from the very beginning, and still contains many images of her.
“All our experiences are reflected in the story of this woman’s life,” the cathedral priest says as he looks at the altar. “Whatever life situation we find ourselves in, we can be sure that Mary experienced something similar in her life: there is the young mother who, in her poverty, gave birth to her child in a stable; the teenage mother who no longer understands her son; the mother at the foot of the cross who sees her own son die and holds his lifeless body in her arms. Mary is not just our patroness and our connection to God – she is a strong woman, a strong person, and there’s a lot we can learn from her.”
In the basement of the Liebfrauendom there is a room you would more likely expect to find at radio and TV broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, and not necessarily in a church. A few square metres in size, the space is scattered with several screens, lamps and joysticks.
Since summer 2020, Klaus Peter Franzl has been responsible not only for pastoral work in the city centre around the cathedral parish and the parishes of St. Peter and the Holy Spirit, but also for spiritual welfare within Munich’s Altstadtring. Taking up these duties during the coronavirus pandemic was a challenge for him and his team: hygiene concepts for masses had to be developed and technology for live broadcasts was expanded.
In the basement of the Liebfrauendom there is a room you would more likely expect to find at radio and TV broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, and not necessarily in a church. A few square metres in size, the space is scattered with several screens, lamps and joysticks. “Recordings from the eleven cameras throughout the church are edited together here – we have been broadcasting a mass on the internet every day since the start of the pandemic,” says Peter Veth, construction coordinator at the cathedral and the man in charge of technology in the church. Livestreaming from a church? No problem in Munich. “Even the blessing applies when it is broadcast live,” Franzl explains. The regular concerts that take place at the Liebfrauendom are also recorded. “We even have a button here that you can push to make the bells ring,” Veth says, laughing.
Next we head to the sacristy, where communion wafers and chalices are stored near a framed photo of Pope Francis, and opposite them is a wall unit holding all the different liturgical vestments worn by the priests during services. There are plenty to choose from – 1,700 to be exact – so the wall unit is several metres long. “The southern tower is finally reopened,” the cathedral priest tells us proudly. The Frauenkirche’s extensive renovations are finally nearing an end, and the towers have been freed of scaffolding after a full decade. There is a rule that continues to apply in Munich to this day: no building in the city centre is permitted to surpass the Frauenkirche in height. And the southern tower is almost 100 metres tall.
There is a rule that continues to apply in Munich to this day: no building in the city centre is permitted to surpass the Frauenkirche in height. And the southern tower is almost 100 metres tall.
“At the end of the 15th century they even put fire watchmen on the towers, people who kept watch for fires in the city,” says Peter Veth. The church has been the tallest building in the city centre ever since it was built. The steeple of the Alter Peter (church), not far from the cathedral, is almost eight metres shorter. There may no longer be watchmen patrolling the top of the Liebfrauenkirche southern tower, but the same path is still regularly paced by sightseers pursuing a unique panoramic view of the city. But is it really worth the climb? Isn’t it a bit strenuous? “We have a lift,” says Peter Veth. “A clear advantage over Alter Peter church,” adds Klaus Peter Franzl with a laugh.